Welcome to Abracadabra Prison

Some readers might be bothered if they think in this piece I am venturing into politics. But when the bright sparks at Correctional Services boldly enter into psychology and psychiatry, consider this simply self-defence.

My concern is the recent outbreak of an apparently profound belief in Word Magic at the Department of Correctional Services. They seem to have decided that simply changing the names of a bunch of prisons will promptly cause them to become functional and to transform their inmates into valuable and trustworthy citizens. Or something like that.

I hesitate, as some of what their spokesman declared is so deviously obscure that I just can't guess what he means. But we have seen this in the industrious renaming of cities and streets, and in the renaming of the ranks in the Police Service (or whatever they're calling it this month).

A rose named Thabo

Word magic is the belief, quite common in all cultures, that words, especially the names of things, have mystic powers and are powerful and influential. Exactly the opposite of the old saying that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", these folks believe that a rose called "Fred" or "Thabo" would have no smell at all, or possibly even smell unpleasant. Same rose, different name.

Similarly, they'd believe that something inherently unpleasant, like a sewer, would smell more pleasing if given a lovely name. There have been attempts at euphemism, in which sewage became "bio-solids", but they were resented, rather than re-scented. Earlier, in America, a prison became a "Correctional Facility", though in practice rarely facile or corrective. And "penitentiary" rarely seemed to contain many true penitents.

It's entirely fine to reject words that were strongly loaded during the Apartheid years, so the loss of Verwoerdburg was a blessing. But it's not helpful to go overboard and stretch it to essentially all place names with a connotation, however neutral or benign, arising within white or European culture. And then to treat these names as though they themselves were harmful.

The central belief is that you can materially change something merely by changing its name. And that's nonsense.

The inscrutable Sonwabo

Sonwabo Mbananga, spokesperson for minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was duly mystifying in trying to explain this latest spasm of amateur psychology. Renaming prisons "will help create public awareness about its daily work". Instead, it has created public awareness of a frightening lack of sensible thinking and planning at the top of correctional services, combined with a touching faith in magic. I doubt that this was exactly what they intended.

"Through the Ministerial Legacy Project of renaming some correctional facilities in South Africa, we wish to galvanise public awareness and association with the work the Department of Correctional Services is doing," he said. Any of you guys feeling galvanised yet? And this very week, the Minister herself insisted that the renaming would "bring hope to communities and inmates." She called for a "shift away from the practice of giving facilities names with no meaning." But if the prison in Delmas is called Delmas Prison - doesn't that have an admirably clear meaning?

If the Department longs for public approval for what they do, wouldn't it be better to improve the actual quality of their work, to achieve exemplary excellence, whatever the places are called? 


Then he said: "Why? This is in mitigation of the program of rehabilitation the department has placed at the centre of its daily work."

I simply can't understand this sentence at all. How does renaming anything "mitigate" a rehab programme? And why does it need mitigation? Maybe the Department should provide English subtitles to its English press statements. Or, here's a wild idea - why not rename the Department itself, and even rename Sonwabo, which would immediately render him more comprehensible?

He said names like Pretoria Central Correctional Centre and Johannesburg Central Correctional Centre were flawed as both names honoured people who were part of a repressive system. "If the objection is to anything at all having the words Johannesburg or Pretoria in their names, this is a massive undertaking, and hardly justifiable. Both were named in the 19th century, when the system may have been far from satisfactory, but was hardly the repressive system as we knew it.

The shocking stories behind the current names

"Johannesburg was named after two commissioners of the apartheid era - Johannes Rissik and Christaan Johannes Joubert" he explained."

Actually, this is not true, unless one insists that "the apartheid era" lasted from at least 1652 until 1994. It was named in 1886, at a time when Johannes was a very common name, probably after Johannes Meyer, the first state official in the area, credited for bringing some order to the establishment of the settlement on what was bare veld, but possibly also after Rissik and Joubert who were from the State Surveyor's office. Hardly major figures in the repressive regime established many decades later.

Eleven correctional centres were identified for renaming: Johannesburg, Pretoria Central, Leeuwkop, Barberton, Modimolle, St Albans, East London, Pollsmoor, Kroonstad, Durban Westville, and the Pietermaritzburg Correctional Centres.

"By building bridges with the community and South African society at large, we create the spaces in which those offenders that are indeed rehabilitated and wish to embark on life afresh are afforded the opportunity to do so," Mbananga said. Now here he goes again. The question is basically whether changing names builds bridges or creates spaces, and whether it is easier to start life afresh if you come from a prison with a lovely name? Certainly not one dripping with offence, such as "St. Albans". 

A massive new airport was named after King Shaka, a fine warrior, surely - but was he really a model of democracy and human rights? Apparently it's awful that Pretoria was named after Pretorius - but has anyone really checked that Chief Tshwane was a better and kinder democrat? 

Barberton was apparently named after James Barber, one of those who discovered gold there, in 1884. He and his cousins were gold prospectors, and hardly apartheid era officials. Leeuwkop has some military history, but is the objection to the original lion whose head a hill was considered to resemble? 

Modimolle puzzles me. The town was originally called Nylstroom, hardly objectionable, and potentially a monument to the naivety of some early trekkers who thought they had found the Nile and the Holy Land. But then the name was changed by this Government to Modimolle, the name of a local hill, and meaning "God has eaten" in Tswana. It beats me why this is now unaccaptable as the name of a prison. 

St Alban was the first British Christian martyr, beheaded in AD 308 on orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, for refusing to give up his Christian faith. I also do not understand what exactly is objectionable about this definitively pre-Apartheid saint. 

Kroonstad. Now legend has it that the town was named after a horse called Kroon which drowned near there.   It was probably a really nice horse! The fact that it was named after a crown washardly its fault. OK, the horse was reputedly owned by a Voortrekker, but I don't feel that the horse should be blamed for this. I also cannot see how such a connection would really damage modern prisoners. 

Some suggestions

Maybe there are other prison names we should be worrying about, such as C Max, for instance. Who were C and Max, and are we sure they are politically correct individuals?

As there's a high risk that some of the proposals would rename these prisons after current or previously active politicians, one has to ask whether it is really an honour to have a prison named after you. Maybe the prisons will be renamed after greatly loved previous prisoners: Tony Yengeni, Shabir Shaik, Robert McBride, Alan Boesak. That might be inspirational. Encourage the inmates to remember that great things could still lie ahead of them. And Jackie Selebi could receive his commemoration in due course.


Yes, our prisons function really badly - notoriously horrible conditions, over-crowding, some inexcusable escapes, and rehabilitation is entirely mythical, or achieved if ever, by the efforts of the individual himself. But the proposal strongly implies that the real need isn't better staff, staff training, facilities, less over-crowding and control of gangs and drugs within the prisons - it's simply that they have the Wrong Names. But for that, our heroic Correctional Services would actually be correcting and serving with awesome efficiency, and rehabilitation of each prisoner would be routine. 

If they are really determined to carry out this approach, here's some suggestions for the new names of the prisons; names which will transparently reveal what the Department is trying to do, without pretending dishonestly that it's anything to do with genuinely improving the prisons or honouring people who deserve to be honoured.

How about Abracadabra? Alakazam, Hocus-Pocus, Hey Presto, Shazam? Rumpelstiltskin? Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo? Mumbo-Jumbo? Maybe "Open Sesame" would be inappropriate? 

As it is, the plan's more reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, who resolved "To make each prisoner pent / Unwillingly represent / A source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment."

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, March 2011)

Copyright M. A. Simpson, 2011

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